The FDA's New Produce Rule Should Have Existed Long Before Now

Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Foodborne illnesses happen a lot (we mean a lot), and every time yet another salmonella or listeria outbreak pops up, you probably wonder: Why? Just how do so many contaminated foods make it through whatever screening processes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has in place to prevent this very thing from happening? Here's the deal: Such processes didn't really exist until last week — at least not on a large, widespread scale.

In a new set of rules established last Friday, the FDA announced that produce importers will now be required to prove the safety and cleanliness of their fruits and vegetables before putting them on the market. Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, acknowledged that last September's salmonella contamination in cucumbers partly drove the decision to put these regulations in place: "The rules will help better protect consumers from food-borne illness and strengthen their confidence that modern preventive practices are in place, no matter where in the world the food is produced,” he explained.

Of course, the Produce Safety Rule, to use its official name, didn't arrive simply due to recent outbreaks. Fruits and veggies have been some of the main sources of food-borne illnesses historically, with contaminated fruits causing half of all listeria outbreaks between 1998 and 2012. Meanwhile, row-grown vegetables were partly responsible for 80% of all E. coli outbreaks. According to the Associated Press, most farmers do follow good safety practices, but problem foods slip through. So, like we said: How didn't an official cleanliness requirement exist before now?

The recent announcement also listed measures that produce growers can take to prevent contamination, including maintaining good water and soil quality, cleaning equipment and facilities regularly, and making sure all employees are in good health. In a moment of impressive foresight, the FDA will require a third party to verify these conditions (rather than simply taking providers at their word).

Even as these rules take effect, we suggest you still be sure to make good produce choices; always wash your fruits and vegetables, and store them properly to avoid spoiling.
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